Saturday, February 22, 2014

Court Convicts 8 in 2012 Protest Against Putin

Court Convicts 8 in 2012 Protest Against Putin

Riot police officers detained protesters outside a Moscow court on Friday. Mikhail Listopadov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MOSCOW — Eight people were convicted on Friday of taking part in a violent protest before the inauguration of President Vladimir V. Putin in 2012, after a prolonged trial that became a symbol of the Kremlin’s renewed stifling of political dissent.
Even before the judge read the verdicts, the police began detaining dozens of people who had gathered outside the courthouse in central Moscow, mindful that the convictions could provoke new outrage and protests against Mr. Putin’s tenure.
The verdicts came amid the political upheaval in Ukraine, which Mr. Putin’s critics here have watched with a mixture of surprise and envy, even as Russian officials have denounced it as an attempted coup by radicals.

After announcing the verdicts, the judge, Natalya Nikishina, suspended the rest of the hearing, postponing the sentencing until at least Monday. That means the sentences will be read after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which officials here have gone to great lengths to portray as a symbol of a new, modern Russia.

The defendants were convicted of taking part in a violent protest before the inauguration of President Putin. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
By the end of the day, at least 213 people had been detained by the police and loaded into buses, according to OVD-Info, a website that documents cases against political prisoners. A police spokesman told the news agency Interfax that those detained had violated the public order, but other protesters said the police had seemed to single out mostly young men for arrest. Most were detained for several hours and then released.

The arrests and the suspension of the hearing appeared to be an effort to head off a mass protest that had been planned for Friday night in the square abutting the Kremlin — one that could, as in Ukraine, overshadow the remaining days of the Olympics. Although Mr. Putin and his aides maintain that they exert no control over the judiciary, it is widely believed here that prosecutions are manipulated for political ends.

“I really hope that the sentence that is to be read will be a sentence for these defendants and not for the Maidan,” said Sergei Panchenko, a lawyer for one of those convicted, Stepan Zimin, referring to Independence Square in Kiev, which has been the center of the protests in Ukraine.

“I really hope that the people — or the person, who we all know, the one person who makes decisions for us — will have sense to issue a punishment having not been guided by his conceptions about what’s happening in a different country,” Mr. Panchenko added.

The eight convicted on Friday, seven men and one woman, went on trial last June and were charged with massing riot or assaulting police officers during a protest on May 6, 2012, the night before Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term after four years as prime minister. Hundreds were arrested, but a group of 29 faced the most serious charges for throwing rocks or chunks of asphalt, though lawyers and human rights advocates argued that the evidence remained murky.

Another of those convicted, Yaroslav G. Belousov, was shown in a video throwing a lemon, but it was not clear if it struck anyone.

The prosecution became known as the Bolotnaya case, after the name of the square across the Moscow River from the Kremlin where the protest took place. Along with the prosecution of members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot and of Aleksei A. Navalny, an anticorruption blogger who was convicted last year and given a suspended sentence, the Bolotnaya case reflected a hardening of Mr. Putin’s policies since returning to the presidency.

Some of the original 29 await trial, and some received amnesty in December as part of what many saw as an effort by the Kremlin to deflect criticism before the Olympics.
To the dismay of Mr. Putin’s critics, the Kremlin’s tactics, alternating between crackdown and selective leniency, have largely muted the groundswell of popular unrest that followed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and Mr. Putin’s re-election in March 2012.

“The Bolotnaya case is a stark example of political manipulation of justice in Russia,” Tanya Lokshina, the program director in Russia for Human Rights Watch, said on Friday in a statement that criticized the prosecution, the trial and the verdicts. “This disproportionate prosecution appears to be aimed at discouraging people from participating in public protests.”

Even so, several hundred people gathered outside the courthouse on Friday to await the verdict. They included opposition party leaders, Mr. Navalny and two members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The two were released in December after spending two years in prison on hooliganism charges for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral, and they have since continued a campaign against Mr. Putin’s tenure.

Those gathered outside held or hung banners calling for the release of the eight defendants. Their chants of “freedom” and “shame” when the police moved to make arrests could be heard inside the courthouse as the verdicts were read. Ekaterina Barabanova, whose husband, Andrei Barabanov, was one of the defendants, was detained by the police but was released minutes later after a lawyer for her husband intervened.

“I wanted him to be home — that all of the guys would be home,” she said after the verdicts were announced. She lamented the delay in the sentencing, saying it appeared that the entire case had been dragged out. “But after today, it’s become ever less comprehensible.”

Patrick Reevell contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on February 22, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Moscow Court Convicts 8 in ’12 Protest Against Putin.

© 2014 The New York Times Company

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